Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Education in Finland: Are We Pushing Children Too Early?

An article in the New York Times by Jenny Anderson reminds us that Finland has a very different approach to education—and they are very successful at it. There will be an extended discussion of the Finnish approach in the near future. Here we will discuss one attribute of Finnish method that appears counterintuitive.
"Ever since Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age 7 and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years, scored at the top of a well-respected international test in 2001 in math, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among American educators and policy makers."

This suggests that one can be more successful by starting later and by not pushing as hard—how intriguing! Anderson wets our appetite but provides few details. Fortunately, Wikipedia provides a nice article on Finland’s schooling. It has this to say about the policy that is followed with respect to the youngest children.

"The Finnish education system is an egalitarian Nordic system, with no tuition fees and with free meals served to full-time students. The present Finnish education system consists of well-funded and carefully thought out daycare programs (for babies and toddlers) and a one-year "pre-school" (or kindergarten for six-year olds); a nine-year compulsory basic comprehensive school (starting at age seven and ending at the age of sixteen)...."

"The focus for kindergarten students is to "learn how to learn", Ms. Penttilä said. Instead of formal instruction in reading and math there are lessons on nature, animals, and the "circle of life" and a focus on materials- based learning."

"Reading for pleasure is actively encouraged (Finland publishes more children's books than any other country). Television stations show foreign programs in the original languages with subtitles, so that in Finland children even read while watching TV."

"During the first years of comprehensive school, grading may be limited to verbal assessments rather than formal grades. The start of numerical grading is decided locally. Most commonly, pupils are issued a report card twice a year: at the ends of the autumn and spring terms. There are no high-stakes tests."

My interest in early learning was piqued by the assertion that the Head Start Program was a failure because, while it seemed to provide preschoolers an advantage, that advantage seemed to dissipate after a year in a regular school. This issue was discussed in The Head Start Program and Learning to Read. I came to the conclusion that it was way too early to begin trying to measure the academic achievements of first graders and making global socio-economic decisions based on the results. It is encouraging to see that Finland takes an approach that is consistent with what has been learned about early childhood education and has made it work. Let us review why Finland is following the correct path.

Reading comprehension has to be the basis for all formal and informal education. So why not consult an expert? Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University has written a fascinating book called Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain. She provides a description of the process a child goes through in learning to be an effective and efficient reader. It is not a simple process and it relies heavily on family support.

"Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading."

This is one function that preschool programs like Head Start can provide. What do the Finns do?

"To foster a culture of reading parents of newborn babies are given three books, one for the mother and father, and a baby book for the child, as part of the ‘maternity package’."

There is a natural progression of capabilities that must be attained before effective reading can be possible. This requires the slow development of fundamental brain functions on a timescale that cannot be rushed, and on a timescale that varies from individual to individual. Wolf says that this process takes at least five years and is not the same for boys and girls. She says that there are observable differences in maturation towards reading fluency up until age eight, with boys coming along slower.

Could there be any reason that the Finns chose age seven to begin formal education? Wolf provides us with this information.

"They found across three different languages that European children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven. What we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children."

Starting education at an early age has inherent pitfalls. It is a typical occurrence in US schools to have a class where the age is nominally six, but actually consists of pupils who range from just under six to just under seven. This means that some students have had a 20% greater lifetime over which to mature than others. Given what Wolf tells us about the variability of maturation rates, one would assume that this is a difficult situation that must be treated carefully. What is common in the US schools? Typically, the students who learn the easiest get more attention and better tutoring. It is even common to separate students into fast learners and slow learners so that the fast learners will not be held back. Malcolm Gladwell examines this process in detail in his book Outliers. He found evidence that this practice of binning young students creates a learning bias that propagates throughout the students’ careers.

What practice is followed by the Finns?

"There are no "gifted" programs, and the more able children are expected to help those who are slower to catch on."

Finland’s practices (and presumably Sweden’s and Norway’s also) seem to be based on firm evidence about how children function. This information is available to educators and politicians in the US. Have any of these issues entered into our public dialogue on education? What we generally hear are verbal cannonballs lofted back and forth across a dead zone by unionized craftspeople on one side and free-market businessmen on the other. One side is determined to show that teachers are not doing their job; the other complains that politicians and administrators are not doing their job. They tend to forget that it is the children who must do the learning. They should spend more time trying to understand and eliminate factors that inhibit learning in children.

Perhaps it is time to quit worrying about teachers and administrators, and begin worrying about malnutrition, poverty, broken homes, and a host of other social ills that need repairing. We cannot eliminate all these things, but there should be ways in which we can begin to isolate our young children from their ill effects.


  1. Great post .See the approach taken in Finland, has learned about early childhood education is the same, and made IT work, which is encouraging. Let us recall why Finland is the correct path.

    common circle education

  2. Thank you for a nice summary of different articles regarding how education works in Finland.


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